By Jeannie Finnegan, CDP, Elder Care & Dementia Care Specialist at Stanton Aging Solutions
Myth #1: Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are the same thing
This is one of the most common myths about Alzheimer’s we hear. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia. That probably explains why many people often use the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” interchangeably, but there are real differences. It’s helpful to think of dementia — a condition that includes problems with memory, reasoning, thinking, mood, and behavior — as an umbrella, with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) comprising about 70% of the umbrella. However, there are several other types of dementia, including frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies. The most common symptoms of dementia are impaired memory, difficulty with communication, and diminished cognitive abilities. Different dementias have different causes, and all dementias, including AD, can vary in their symptoms and progression.
Myth #2: The first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss
While many people think that memory loss is always the first symptom of AD, recent studies demonstrate that AD begins its attack on the brain up to a decade before any symptoms, such as memory loss, appear. According to a top researcher at Harvard Medical School, brain markers for AD may appear as early as middle age. During this “preclinical” stage, damaging toxic changes are already happening to the brain. In addition, memory loss may not be the first symptom noticed when someone has AD. Other problems with cognition such as trouble with word-finding, impaired judgment and decision-making, or spatial/vision difficulties may be the first symptoms noticed. If you believe you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of AD, we are here to help. We can perform an initial cognitive assessment and help you get the additional resources and information you may need. Contact us.
Myth #3: Earlier detection of AD makes it more treatable
While earlier detection of AD may be helpful for other reasons, it does not change the effectiveness of treatment or slow disease progression. A 2019 study found that the amyloid proteins thought to be linked to AD can be detected in a simple blood test, but because there are currently no treatments to prevent AD or delay its progression, that information isn’t as valuable as one would hope.
A new anti-amyloid drug called aducanumab was recently approved by the FDA, perhaps prematurely, and raised hopes for an effective treatment for AD. Anti-amyloid drugs attach themselves to free-floating amyloid proteins before the proteins form into plaques, in the hopes that the drug will prevent the accumulation of damaging plaques in the brain. However, a recent large clinical trial that focused on adults in an early stage of the disease showed no benefit from anti-amyloid drugs, such as aducanumab, and no data demonstrated that the drug actually slows cognitive impairment or disease progression. This has led to a debate as to whether amyloid is even a cause of AD or if it is merely a marker of the disease (in the same way that gray hair is a marker of aging, for example).
Myth #4: If my parent had Alzheimer’s, I will probably get it too
This is another one of the most common myths about Alzheimer’s. AD is a complex disease, and experts do not yet fully understand what causes it. For many individuals, no genetic link can be established, and for most individuals, the research suggests that there are many factors beyond genetics that play a part in the development and progression of AD. These can include lifestyle factors such as exercise, diet, exposure to pollutants, and smoking. Genetics are actually a rare indicator for AD. According to Dr. Gad Marshall, associate medical director of clinical trials at the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “For 1% of all cases [of AD], there are three genes that determine definitively whether or not you will have Alzheimer’s.”
Although we don’t yet know how to prevent AD, it’s important to practice healthy behaviors throughout your lifetime, such as exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and getting adequate sleep. Interestingly, the most convincing evidence on preventative lifestyle indicators demonstrates that aerobic exercise helps prevent the development of Alzheimer’s or slows the progression in people who have symptoms. The recommendation is 30 minutes of moderately vigorous cardio exercise, three to four days per week. Eating a Mediterranean diet and getting adequate sleep are also lifestyle habits that appear to be preventative.
Myth #5: Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are a normal part of getting old
As we age, many of us will become more forgetful; for example, losing things from time to time or taking longer than we’d like to come up with the right word in a conversation. In contrast, the common symptoms of AD often involve frequently making poor judgments or decisions, losing track of the date or the season, having trouble recognizing family or friends, getting lost in familiar areas, and forgetting how to do a common task.
If you are worried about your memory or other symptoms affecting yourself or a loved one, talk to a physician to review the medical history and perform assessments that evaluate memory and thinking, as well as medical tests that can be performed to get an accurate diagnosis. For referrals to resources or more information, please reach out to us using our contact form, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are here to be your partner in care.